Unstoppable: How Kevin Hancock of Hancock Lumber was Able to Thrive Despite Spasmodic Dysphonia
See the invitation to change that the disability or limitation brings. I believe that my voice condition came to me for a reason. I now see it as a gift from my own soul or spirit guides. It was a shot across my bow that forced me to think differently about leadership, ego, business, and the very purpose or mission of work in the 21st Century. Work should advance the lives of the people who do it. Work should be a forum for adults to have a voice and be heard. All of these exciting gifts came from what I first considered to be a liability.
As a part of our “Unstoppable” series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin Hancock, CEO of Hancock Lumber, one of the oldest companies in America and a six-time recipient of the ‘Best Places to Work in Maine’ award. In 2010, at the peak of the national housing and mortgage market collapse, Kevin acquired a rare neurological voice disorder called Spasmodic Dysphonia (SD). When his own voice became weakened, he developed a new leadership style based on strengthening the voices of others. He is now a champion of a work culture where everyone leads and every voice is trusted, respected, and heard. His new book, The Seventh Power-One CEO’s Journey into the Business of Shared Leadership (February 2020), shares the philosophy, values and strategies Hancock Lumber Company has embraced on its journey toward becoming an employee-centric company — where leadership responsibilities are broadly shared rather than power coming from the top down. His first book, Not For Sale: Finding Center in the Land of Crazy Horse is a memoir that shares the lessons learned in Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is really an honor. Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
I am the CEO of Hancock Lumber Company, one of the oldest family businesses in America. Our company was established in 1848 and I’m part of the 6th consecutive generation of my family to work for the company. We are a fully integrated forest products company. We own timberland and grow trees. We have sawmills that manufacture lumber for global distribution. Finally, in Maine and New Hampshire we operate a series of lumberyards that supply building materials and construction services to contractors and homeowners. 550 people work at our company and lead our efforts.
Do you feel comfortable sharing with us the story surrounding how you became disabled or became ill? What mental shift did you make to not let that “stop you”?
In 2010, at the peak of the housing and mortgage market collapse I acquired a rare neurological voice disorder called Spasmodic Dysphonia (SD). Speaking, something I had always taken for granted and done a lot of, suddenly became very difficult. As a CEO in many ways, my primary tool was my voice so at the time I was quite uncertain how I would continue to do my job.
When it’s hard to talk, you develop strategies for doing less of it and mine was to answer a question with a question, thereby putting the conversation right back on the other person. So when someone came up to me at work with a question or a problem, I started responding by saying, “Well that is a good question. What do you think we should do about it?” What struck me about this exchange over time was that people already knew what to do. They didn’t actually need, in most cases, a top-down management directive to solve their problems. All they really needed was encouragement and safe work culture to trust their own judgment and follow their own voice.
This new understanding made a dramatic impact on the way I thought about leadership. I soon came to see my own voice condition as a gift. It was an invitation to disperse power, share leadership broadly, and strengthen the voices of others. My former view of leadership was to be the voice. My new view of leadership was to create a work culture that gave others a stronger voice. This all got me focused on building a new corporate culture where everybody led. This transformed work from being an economic exercise to a human one. Work could become a place where adults can self-actualize and come into their own true voice.
Can you tell our readers about the accomplishments you have been able to make despite your disability or illness ?
Well, having SD gave me a brand new leadership philosophy and with this approach, our company went from achieving good results to great ones. More importantly, in the eyes of our employees, the company became a great place to work. We have since been selected six consecutive times as the Best Place to Work in Maine, which is a function of employee satisfaction ratings as measured by third-party surveys. Finally, I’ve now written two books about the importance of voice encouraging people to find and love their your voice exactly as you are.
What advice would you give to other people who have disabilities or limitations?
See the invitation to change that the disability or limitation brings. I believe that my voice condition came to me for a reason. I now see it as a gift from my own soul or spirit guides. It was a shot across my bow that forced me to think differently about leadership, ego, business, and the very purpose or mission of work in the 21st Century. Work should advance the lives of the people who do it. Work should be a forum for adults to have a voice and be heard. All of these exciting gifts came from what I first considered to be a liability. So I think we all have to just hang in there when something tough occurs and give it some time to play out before we judge its impact and value.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
Of course, first, there is my family. My family always believes in me and supports me. Beyond that, I am exceptionally grateful to the employees of our company who supported me through my voice condition — allowed me to become a new kind of CEO — and have embraced the philosophy of shared leadership.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Well, ultimately others will have to be the judge of that. From my view, a few things come to mind. I acquired my voice condition in 2010. In 2012 I began traveling from my home in Maine to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation on the northern plains. It’s a place I have now been to over twenty times. Pine Ridge is the biggest, most remote, most historic, and today poorest of all the Sioux reservations. There I discovered an entire community that didn’t feel fully heard. The people there felt marginalized like they had no voice, and because of my own condition, I could relate.
My voice condition coupled with my time at Pine Ridge helped me realize that there are lots of ways for people to lose a piece of their voice in this world. Across time, leaders have probably done more to restrict, limit, and direct the voices of others than to liberate them. That’s how I came to realize that I wanted to be someone who helped strengthen the voices of others. It’s also how I came to find the question that has become my personal mission: ‘What if everyone on earth felt trusted, respected, valued, safe, and heard?’ If that happened what might change? I think everything might change and that question is at the heart of the work culture I want to create, foster, and spread. Hopefully, that is helping to bring some goodness into the world.
Can you share “5 things I wish people understood or knew about people with physical limitations” and why.
This is a great question that many others could likely answer better than I but here are my thoughts:
- People with physical limitations are still fully human.
- People with physical limitations often develop some extraordinary skills in the process of learning to compensate. In this way they are gift-bearers.
- People with physical limitations don’t want to be treated more cautiously or gently than others.
- People with physical limitations may do certain things at a different speed and that’s ok. For example, in a crowded room, I can’t jump into a conversation like I used to but if people give me a moment of quiet to get going, I can still say everything I want to say.
- People with physical limitations don’t dwell on them. They move forward and live.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” — Mahatma Gandhi.
I used to think management and leadership was about getting other people to change. I know believe it’s all about working on ourselves and becoming the change. In this way, leadership becomes an inside job. We lead by working on ourselves, not others.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)
Wow, I would say honestly it might be Arianna Huffington herself. Thrive Global’s mission of ending workplace stress and burnout is exceptionally well-aligned with my own work and writing. Arianna has the platform and voice to help propel what I have learned and written about reinventing the place of work as a result of my voice condition.
Thank you for all of these great insights!